Coming off a difficult and frustrating loss to Arizona State, Notre Dame welcomes Northwestern to town, a second opportunity at an eighth victory. For as difficult as last Saturday was for Irish fans, it’s been wash, rinse and repeat for those following the Wildcats this year.
Last weekend’s failed two-point conversion against Michigan was just the latest gut punch to Pat Fitzgerald’s squad, falling to 3-6 on the season and in real danger of missing a bowl game for the second consecutive season. After building Northwestern into a program that was seemingly in contention to win at least eight games a season, it’s been a deep dive since Northwestern let victory against Ohio State slip out of their hands early last season.
Taking us through the misery is the always wonderful Lake the Posts. The editor and founder of Northwestern’s friendly sports outpost (serving a daily dose of Wildcataganda since 2007) he hit this one out of the park.
This might be my favorite Q&A of the year. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.
You okay? As a fanbase, it feels like Year 2 of the slide hurts a lot more than last season’s collapse. Leaving the fandom’s pain aside, can you give us a look into a program that’s now lost 13 of its last 17 football games? (Yikes.)
Short answer – “no”. We are not OK. We’re somewhere between full blown panic mode or worse – resignation. Despondent, frustrated, furious, cursed…you get the gist. One of the many beautiful things about being a Northwestern coach is that despite the rhetoric, we hold ourselves to a different standard (“hey look over here, have you seen our APR lately”?!!!). Most Northwestern fans are a forgiving lot. However, in part because Pat Fitzgerald’s five year run from ’08-’12 had conditioned fans to “a bowl game” as the floor, this two year skid, in years eight and nine of his tenure are particularly tough to swallow.
Heading in to this season on the heels of the union debate-filled off-season, most fans were willing to write off 2013 as an outlier. Now, it’s hard not to look at the past five seasons and point to the 10-win 2012 season as the outlier. The win totals have followed a disturbing trend in the past seven seasons – 9,8,7,6,10,5,3 (so far). Therein lies the issue.
There are so, so many issues it’s hard to know where to start. When you start looking back game by game over the past several years, the program that had become synonymous with pulling out close games has flipped the script. Starting in 2012, we became an increasingly conservative team. We’d sprint out to leads and try to hang on for dear life. All 3 losses that year involved significant 4th quarter leads that we lost. 2013 started a really disturbing trend of injuries that I’m blaming on Iowa, just because, but this off-season it became almost laughable. We couldn’t hold full scrimmages because we had so many people out for spring practice. Then, on the same day, our most explosive player – All-American Venric Mark transferred and our best WR Christian Jones blew his knee out and was gone for the year. The injuries have racked up to epic proportions (three defensive players including a captain have had to retire from football due to injuries). But, every team has injuries. The injuries have exposed some depth issues. The real issues run much deeper.
Here are my top three:
1) The offense has been anemic – 5th year QB Trevor Siemian is actually a decent passer, but he’s been wildly inconsistent. Our wide receivers have been bottled up for two straight seasons now, in part, b/c when we don’t have a mobile QB threat, it makes it much easier for opponents to defend us. We’ve got no one who can beat man coverage downfield (who isn’t injured and we’ve got 4-5 WRs out with injury consistently), Trevor holds on to the ball too long and the play calling has been beyond puzzling. It’s a perfect storm of a mess.
2) Special teams – This is the most overlooked issue by outsiders. We’ve been a train wreck. Fitz is the special teams coach and it has been awful. Last week’s Michigan 1-point loss is a perfect example. Michigan’s lone TD came as a result of a fumbled punt at our own 20, we missed a chip shot FG and a platoon of punters averaged less than net 30 yards on the day as they fielded ground ball snaps all day. Our punt coverage team had a gimme to down the ball at the Michigan one and let it bounce of their leg in to the end zone. That in a nutshell has been a weekly occurrence.
3) The team has zero identity – Fitz-coached teams in the past seemed to feed off of his energy. This team has been lifeless at times and it started in the season opener when we got throttled in the first half. The players went to Fitz and asked to be coached harder and held more accountable after the NIU loss and it worked – for a few weeks. We’ve seemed to try and be something we’re not at times and the days of scrappy, smart play have been replaced by massive inconsistency in execution, failures in in-game adapting and an overall lifelessness that has the fan base howling.
Staying big picture, is it fair to say the shine is off Pat Fitzgerald? I’m not insinuating he should be on the hot seat in Evanston, but are you viewing Fitzgerald (the coach) differently after this slide? If you were in his shoes, what’s the first thing you change?
Yes. Fans want to love him and want him to succeed. A pervasive thought I’ve heard among fans is that he is the “best coach in America Sunday through Friday”. What’s been disheartening to many fans is Fitz’s defensiveness with the media during the slide. It has been more combative than empathetic. Look, there are a ridiculous amount of injuries and adversity, but Fitz will be the first to tell you that is expected. The back-ups have simply not been prepared. There are only so many post game losing speeches when you can hear “it starts with us the coaches, we have to do a better job” before you start to get numb to it.
Personally, I think Fitz is the right guy for the job, I’m a fan of his and respect the heck out of him personally. I’m not one to call for people’s specific heads during a season, but I can tell you based on the sea of disgruntled comments and emails that fans are not happy with OC Mick McCall and the offensive position coaches in general (with the exception of RB where Justin Jackson has shined).
Let’s stay with the not-so-happy stuff. The offensive line. This summer you told me that the NU offensive line is 19th in the FBS in returning career starts, usually a good sign. This group hasn’t been good. Injuries? Bad players? What’s the deal?
ESPN analyst Ed Cunningham was excellent in his assessment of the line during the Michigan game which I believe you can extrapolate over much of the losing skid. He outright called out Mick McCall for putting Trevor Siemian in deep drop backs b/c our line is weakest at pass protection that requires any length of time. It stems from the fact that unlike the spread of NU’s past, we have no threat of mobility and opponents know it. We’re actually pretty good in run blocking schemes and when we go with the quick, up-tempo rapid fire approach. Right tackle has been an eyesore all year and the revolving door approach hasn’t solved for it. It’s been really, really disappointing.
Fans have clamored for 4-star QB dual threat RS freshman Matt Alviti to offer the run threat and he finally made his first appearance of the season last week for all of three snaps. I expect to see him a ton on Saturday. This has been the head-scratcher. The running threat on 3rd and 6-8 was a staple of success for years and without the run threat, we’ve just been crushed.
Defensively, this team is pretty solid, especially when you consider how much the offense has put on them. The Wildcats secondary has been really solid, and they’ve got more interceptions than touchdowns allowed. How will Fitz and DC Mike Hankwitz handle the Irish’s talented wide receiving corps and the turnover prone Everett Golson?
The “D” has actually been exceptional other than 8 quarters (2 vs Cal, 2 vs Nebraska, 4 vs Iowa) this season. When you’re season scoring average is under 20 you’re doing something right. When you consider just how bad we’ve been in spotting the opponents ridiculous field position, you get a sense that this unit could be very good. Mike Hankwitz should get credit. We’ve been crushed with injuries and unlike the offense, the young talent has stepped up. We have an NFL-level safety with Ibraheim Campbell who has been sidelined most of the year and his replacement Godwin Igwebuike has been great. We’ve got a ton of freshmen (both true and redshirt) that have been huge. LB Anthony Walker has had to replace senior captain Collin Ellis and he brings the lumber. The future looks very bright for the defense if they can eliminate those 8 quarters of inconsistency. This is where the uptick in recruiting has been most evident.
The pass rush has been inconsistent and Hankwitz is a highly conservative play caller. We’ve yet to face a dual threat QB with Golson’s skill set this season, so I expect him to have his way through the air as we likely won’t go all out on blitzes knowing he can kill us with his feet. We do have guys who are incredible athletes and can make individual plays. The “D” will pick off Golson if he’s careless on his throws and his carelessness with the rock is something you can bet our guys will be aware of and be looking to ballhawk. I really like our “D” with the exception of the team that kidnapped our team in Iowa City.
I fear we’ll overcompensate on “D” and do too much sitting back trying to contain Golson which will lead to deep ball success b/c no team can give you 5-10 seconds and not expect to get burned by your highly talented receiving corps.
It sounds like the quarterback position has gotten ugly. Matt Alviti saw a few snaps last week against Michigan with Fitz promising more of the same this Saturday. What’s a realistic split? Is Trevor Siemian on his way out? Is it really his fault?
I feel really bad for Trevor. I will likely get piled on for this statement, but I believe he’s a good QB. The weak offensive line play and the man to man press coverage on our receivers have given him little to work with. Plus, for the first time that I can ever remember, we’ve been terrible at catching passes. There have been countless times that guys have dropped wide open passes. Trevor has been more inconsistent as well, missing open guys from time to time, something he rarely did in years past. The Alviti question is a good one. He was heavily recruited by Notre Dame and NU won out in a head to head, so you know he’ll be gunning to go.
Alviti’s lack of playing time has been one of the most popular topics of the year. Insiders have told me that he wasn’t ready for the field, which has been puzzling since he was one of the most sought after QB recruits we’ve ever landed and he’s had a full redshirt year and now this season to play. The pervasive thought among fans has been “how could it be any worse than the current offense”? I expect to see him about 15-20% on Saturday depending upon how he does early on in the game.
How impressive has freshman Justin Jackson been? Is he the key to Saturday for the Wildcat offense? What needs to go right offensively for Northwestern to win?
He’s beyond outstanding. When you consider opposing teams have essentially laughed at our passing game and stacked the box, he’s been brilliant. Up until Michigan shut him down last week (only 35 yards) he had been cranking out 100+ yard games on a weekly basis against Top 20 run defenses all year long – Penn State, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Minnesota – he’s got that extra something about him that he turns 2-yard plays in to 7-yard gains by just his motor. He’s got the mix of power and grace and with any kind of a consistent passing game and deep threat, he’d be averaging 125 per game (He’s averaging just under 90 ypg). The one thing he hasn’t been able to do is bust big plays. That’s the next level for him – to break that 50-yarder. However, he’s on pace for 1,000 yards this year in a train wreck of an offense and should he stay healthy his arrow is pointing to making a run at the all-time rushing record for NU. He’s just a joy to watch.
For as ugly as this season has been, my brother (a Wisconsin grad) continues to talk about Northwestern’s ability to big-game hunt. Notre Dame has either faced the best effort of their opponents or played down to them, depending on how full or empty you view the glass. Should Irish fans be on upset alert?
Not based on what I’ve seen. The irony is not lost on Wildcat fans who’ve been clutching ND bragging rights for 19 years, that we’re returning to the site of the program slingshot game in 1995. Fitzgerald’s then coach, Gary Barnett, had coined the phrase “Belief without Evidence” heading in to that season and that motto holds true now. Any belief in an upset would be not based on any evidence in 2014 other than a 2-week span to open B1G play when we throttled a weak Penn State team in Happy Valley and upset Wisconsin at home.
For a variety of reasons, some Notre Dame fans are taking pleasure in seeing Northwestern struggle. In large part, because of comments from Fitzgerald back in 2009.
“Even though we’re similar academically, we’re in a little different boat as Stanford and Notre Dame,” Fitzgerald said. “We’ve been consistently winning since 1995. They’re still saying they can do it, but we’re doing it.”
I took issue with both Fitzgerald’s remark — and Mandel’s writeup — back then. Looking at this week’s game notes, it points out something that’s been fairly obvious for a long time: Northwestern is 28-11 in August and September (non-conference time) and just 30-41 from October on. Put harshly, you can argue that Northwestern build their “winner” based on cupcake non-conference victories.
I don’t blame you. If the shoe was on the other foot, I’d be crushing us if I were Notre Dame fans. We’d be regaling in Notre Dame’s misery if you were going through a tough time as well and I’m not afraid to admit it. I’d be disappointed if ND fans didn’t!! We deserve it.
In fairness though, I think context is important. At that point in 2009, ND was entering uncharted waters of bad times as Charlie Weis was rounding out a torch-inducing tenure with consecutive win totals of 7,6 and 3 while NU was arrow up to a 9-win season after and 8-win season. We still had the 3 Big Ten titles to point to, but didn’t want to acknowledge that we were well on our way to tying ND for the mutually notorious bowl losing record (9 straight).
I would imagine that it is easy to love to hate Fitz from an outside perspective. I get it. I don’t mean that in jest.
There are lots of ways to slice the numbers (Fitz has a winning record in November and has gone 1-4 in bowl games), but the most important way to assess the body of work is the Big Ten record which isn’t good – 29-40, to your point. Northwestern fans used to tell you to look under the hood (last 3 Michigan games lost on final play, 2 Nebraska etc…) but that has now become the norm more than the exception. It is what it is.
In a Big Ten conference that’s far from its strongest, what does this program need to do to turn things around?
You hit on the double-whammy. We’ve downright stunk the last two seasons and as you’ve seen firsthand, this would’ve been the ideal time for NU to make a Minnesota-like surge to compete for the B1G conference title.
It’s hard to believe just last year we had ESPN Gameday visit when we were #16 in the country and seemed on the verge of knocking off #4 Ohio State. Since then it’s been a cliff dive. Fans are howling for assistant coaching changes and an overhaul in our philosophy. I think fans would love to see a Moneyball approach to NU football with a smart, analytically-driven approach that has us much more aggressive than we’ve been. I’ve talked to many former players who marvel at the current talent level – guys from 2008, 2009 and even 2012 – and they just don’t get it. There doesn’t seem to be that “refuse to lose” attitude and leadership on this team, but overall, we seem like a team that is telling itself a story while the rest of the league has us figured out to a tee.
I genuinely hope NU takes an honest assessment of the program top down and makes the painful and necessary changes at all levels. If there are no changes on the staff it will get as ugly as ugly gets in Northwestern circles, which means “not that ugly, but we think it is”. There is no doubt Fitz is a good leader and he’s going through the toughest stretch he’s faced. I feel bad for him, but I also know he’s the one who has the ability and the authority to do what he needs to do to get the right people in the right place.
Last one, I promise: Walk me through the winning formula for a Northwestern upset on Saturday afternoon?
Wow. After the ’95 game I’ll never, ever say “never”, but I feel like I’m in make believe. My colleague, Philip Rossman-Reich posted the three factors that when Northwestern wins at least two of them, NU has gone 3-0, when they fail to win two of them, NU has gone 0-6.
The three factors are 1)turnover battle 2)field position 3)big plays (20+ yards). We’ll need to win the first two to have a shot. I can’t believe I’m writing this, but Northwestern isn’t an offense that has the horsepower to score in bunches (primarily because we have no big play ability). Our scoring drives are of the long, methodical 15-play variety. If Notre Dame gets out to a double digit lead early it could be a long day. The Wildcat defense will have to make multiple key takeaways with great field position for us to have a shot. There has yet to be a game where NU has had it click on all three phases so we are back to “Belief without Evidence”.